The shepherd and his wife had prepared the cottage three years before. He had patched thatch of the roof and white-washed the stone. He had swept the spiders out and cleared the chimney.
The master’s letters came sporadically. Though the shepherd’s wife was prompt about writing and reporting the state of the land and the herd. Every three months without fail, she sent a letter through the captain at the post. They had long ago deduced that their master was a military man, in service to the new high king, Tireachan.
Otherwise, they had little to go on. They had been contacted through a manager, a beatling little man with more hair on his ears than on his head, who found the shepherd in poor circumstances and made him an offer. His client was looking for an honest man, preferably with a wife, to care for his property in his absence. And while the shepherd had not always been an honest man in the past, he saw the opportunity to make a change and seized upon it readily. His wife was a fastidious woman, grateful that their fortunes had finally shifted. By the time they received word that master would finally take residence in his cottage, the wife had one healthy baby girl on her hip and another child on the way.
This did not keep her from giving the master’s cottage a thorough going over. She scrubbed the floorboards and re-stuffed the mattresses with fresh wool and straw. She bought bright blue cloth and made curtains and bedclothes and even napkins; she worked her hands raw. The master had been generous and granted them an independent existence; affording them a level of trust for which they were eager to show gratitude.
And though they had not known what to expect, they were still surprised, when there arrived a young steel-eyed woman with faint scars on her beautiful, yet somber face and her white-haired, blind father, badly scarred as well and of fitful health.
The shepherd tended the flock as usual throughout the summer. And his wife walked the short path through the green hills to visit with the master and his daughter, Nevan and Caoinlin. Nevan was clearly from the nearby province of Gaidtach Tuath, his accent was like a deep blue brocade, rich and pleasing no matter what he said. But his daughter’s accent was strange, muddled. At times, it sang in the same sorrowful slurs and curls as her father’s and, at other times, it was something altogether different, light and warm, like summer sand.
From the moment that the strange pair arrived, two things were evident to the shepherd and his wife. The first being that the master, Nevan, had little time left for this world and had come to this serene place to die.
The second was that the daughter was in charge; she was their true master. They knew by her regal carriage, by the cool assurance with which she directed the men who moved the meager possessions brought by the master, and by the exacting clarity she utilized in every consideration.
At first, the shepherd and his wife were petrified of Caoinlin. She was unlike any woman they had known, or any man for that matter.
In her presence, they had a tendency to bow excessively and stammer through the simplest of responses. They shared the sense that Caoinlin was a personage of extraordinary quality.
As the summer lulled and the shepherd’s wife came closer to her time due, she grew particularly insightful concerning Caoinlin, as though bearing new life into the world had granted her perception beyond the usual.
“There’s a tragic air about her,” she said, one balmy evening.
The shepherd reclined in the fresh dewy grass outside his modest cottage, his sheep bleeting not far in the distance. The moon was new and the sky brimmed with stars like a field of white poppies. Grasshoppers chirped from every distance, chorusing in sleepy tones. His wife rested in a chair beside the door, her ripe belly filling up her lap.
“I think she’s very sad,” she said. “I think there’s someone out there, pining over her.”
“’Course there is,” he said, brushing a fluttery dark-winged moth from his chest. “A woman like that can’t but have a man anxious for her. More than one, most like.”
“She won’t stay,” his wife said. “Once the old man’s gone. She’ll leave here.”
“Why should she stay? There’s nothing round here, not for days. Not for a woman like that.”
“But if she tries,” his wife said, “we mustn’t let her.”
The shepherd squinted at her. “What you on about? What say have we got in it?”
“None at all,” his wife said, “but we mustn’t, that’s all.”
“I’d like to know where you get these notions from.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Talking like that.”
“All I’m saying, is that if she stays, it will be so that she can die too,” his wife said in her uncompromising tone. “We mustn’t let her stay, or she will die here. There’s no good from her giving up to dying, that’s all.”
“Dying? She’s bit pale, but they all are up north, aren’t they? She looks strong enough to me. She ill?”
“There’s sickness that starts in the heart and infects the body, right and true as any ague,” his wife said.
“Love sick, is that what you’re at?”
His wife stared up at the night sky. “Love lost, I think.”
“Not our mind,” he scolded. “I shouldn’t think a woman like that would want the likes of us prying into her personal affairs.”
“A woman like that,” his wife said, “would never allow anybody pry into anything she didn’t want them to pry into. We won’t be prying, when the times right, we’ll be asking, and that will be enough I think.”
“Asking where she’ll be going onto,” his wife said in the tone of settling-the-matter. “When the time’s right.”
“Going onto?” The shepherd propped up on his knobby elbow. “What makes you think she’ll be telling us a thing, if that’s what she’s intending, at any time?”
“Oh, she won’t,” his wife said, “but that’s not the point of asking.”
“Don’t you bother about it,” his wife said.
He eyed her sharply.
“You just wait and see,” his wife told him, “When the time’s right, I’ll ask her and you watch, that’ll be what she needs.”
“And when would that be then?”
His wife simply smiled. In truth, she had no idea when the time would come.
It came two years and a few months later, after Nevan died. He passed away peacefully, with Caoinlin at his side. They buried him on the hilltop and men came with a wagon of stone and built a mound of black rock, all the way from Gaidtach Tuath. The cairn glittered in the warm autumn light. A few weeks later, the wife asked her question, when it seemed that Caoinlin’s grief was at an ebb.
Two weeks after the question was asked, Caoinlin was gone. And the land that had been hers was sold to the shepherd and his wife for a price they knew to be grossly undervalued, but Caoinlin would accept no more.